Monday, December 25, 2006
Bringing Up Baby
This homily is really old -- I preached it in 2002! -- but I still like it, and if it covers some of the same thematic territory as the one I posted yesterday, it has a decidedly lighter tone.
The Gospel is, once again, Luke 2:1-20, not that I talk much about it here.
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We’re gathered this morning on one of the most joyous days of the Christian calendar, the day when God put on a body and was born as a human child. But if any of us are feeling more dazed and exhausted than joyous, it’s not too surprising. By any measure, religious or secular, Christmas is one of the most stressful times of the year. These past few weeks, we’ve all had too much to do -- cooking, cleaning, shopping, wrapping -- and not enough time to do it. We may fervently wish that we were able to give more -- more time, more money, more presents -- or we may resent being asked to give so much. We may be mourning the absence of people who used to put the joy into Christmas for us, and who aren’t here anymore. Whatever we’re actually feeling, though, we’re under enormous pressure to show only the socially approved emotions of cheer, fellowship, and good will. Christmas is an object lesson in the difference between expectations and reality.
I strongly suspect that it’s been that way since the very first Christmas; I have a hunch that Mary and Joseph were feeling dazed and exhausted that first Christmas morning, too. Jesus was a first child, and his parents, temporarily homeless, were bedded down in a barn. The Gospels don’t tell us how long Mary was in labor, in that era before anesthetics, but first children are usually more difficult to deliver than later ones. It’s a safe bet that if epidurals and comfy birthing rooms had been available, Mary would have jumped at them. Like the shepherds in the fields, we don’t hear about that part: we only get the engraved birth announcement, delivered by angels and accompanied by a heavenly choir.
We and the shepherds are told that the child’s humble housing is actually a sign of his aristocracy, proof that he’s really front and center on God’s Society Pages. This would have been good news indeed to the shepherds, who were considered unclean laborers; the fact that they were chosen as the first to hear the news is one of the many radical things about the Nativity, underpinning the New Testament’s insistence that “the last shall be first.” The most radical part of this story, of course, is the sheer fact of the incarnation, the appearance of God the Son -- Our Lord Jesus Christ, the author of creation -- as a squalling infant in an unprepossessing building in an obscure corner of an occupied territory.
When we hear the phrase “God the Son,” we usually think of Jesus as God’s son, as the son of Yahweh, who is also our Father. This makes Jesus our brother. But Christmas reminds us of another meaning of “God the Son:” for Jesus was also Mary and Joseph’s son, and when all the angels and well-wishers and wise men bearing gifts had left, when these dazed, brand-new parents had digested the announcements and prophecies about who their child was and would become, they were still left with the day-to-day realities of taking care of a newborn.
If God appeared among us as a human infant, then God needed two a.m. feedings. God needed his diapers changed. God had to be burped and rocked and soothed through nightmares and teething pains and colic. God went through the terrible twos. God got scraped knees and chicken pox. God had to be toilet trained. And if Mary and Joseph, like all new parents, thought that Baby Jesus was the most beautiful child in the world, he probably also frequently drove them nuts. Where were the angels when Jesus got the flu and was up projectile vomiting all night? Where were the Wise Men when Jesus went through that stage where he asked “Why?”every two seconds? That’s when Wise Men would have been useful!
We don’t hear about any of this in the Gospels. The Apocrypha -- early Christian writings that were ultimately left out of the New Testament, partly because their authenticity was contested -- are far more forthcoming about the challenges of raising such a singular child. In the First Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ, written during the second century, we learn that Jesus and his playmates liked to make clay animals, which Jesus obligingly brought to life. This alarmed his friends’ parents, who accused Jesus of being a sorcerer. Granted, Jesus could be helpful at home, especially since his father wasn’t a very good carpenter. When Joseph spent two years making a throne for the King of Jerusalem, only to find that it was two spans too short, his son said, “Do thou lay hold on one side of the throne, and I will the other, and we will bring it to its just dimensions.” Jesus and Joseph tugged the throne to the proper size, “which miracle when they who stood by saw, they were astonished, and praised God.”
But these folk stories of Jesus’ childhood contain as many disasters as wonders. It seems that he hadn’t yet figured out the part about loving his neighbors, because he did not play well with others. Yes, he healed the sick and raised the dead, but he also killed children who bumped into him or broke his toys. When Jesus misbehaved in school and his teacher threatened to whip him, the teacher’s hand withered, and the man died. One can only imagine what Mary and Joseph went through during all of this, not to mention their neighbors. The summary of the second chapter of Thomas’ infancy narrative presents a succinct portrait of parental strain: “Jesus causes a boy to wither who broke down his fish pools, partly restores him, kills another boy, and causes blindness to fall on his accusers, for which Joseph pulls him by the ear.” If Joseph and Mary expected that their miraculous baby would be easier to raise than other children, they quickly discovered that the reality was very different.
And here we are two thousand years later, still learning the same lesson, year after year. We’ve experienced the joy and wonder of the miraculous birth, and everyone we know has given us gifts, and we’ve sung joyous hymns and cooked a lot of food for our visitors. And now we have to go home, clean up after our guests, and begin the hard, daily work of tending our faith. Right now it’s sweetly wrapped in swaddling clothes in the living room, cooing at the stars and angels on the Christmas tree. It’s adorable at this age, isn’t it?
But we all know that parenting is the hardest job there is. Over the next twelve months, the church year will lead us through a series of challenges and heartbreaks, as well as triumphs and miracles. Jesus’ life was nothing if not eventful, and -- like conscientious parents who attend every dance recital and soccer game -- we’re called to witness to all of it. Our own lives have a way of getting complicated, too, but we’re charged with the task of never neglecting our faith, the presence of Jesus in our lives. We’re called to listen to Jesus, talk to him, play with him, grieve over his pains and setbacks, and cheer his victories. We’re called to be patient when he appears to be a wayward child who’d rather hide than come when we call. Above all, we’re called to love him as much as we can, even when we’re distracted, short-sighted or short-tempered.
And we’re called to trust that Jesus will forgive us when we goof. No parents are perfect, and he’s a good kid. He’ll love us no matter what; he’ll never forget to call, to write, to bring presents. And when we can’t take care of him anymore, he’ll take care of us. He’ll stay with us to the very end; he’ll be our strength when we lose our own, until at last he brings us home, to live with him forever.